The name Kalanchoe — pronounce it either ka-lan-KO-ee or ka-lan-CHO-ee and you’ll be just fine — may sound strange and foreboding and, if truth be told, some of the plants included in this genus are precisely that. Kalanchoe ‘Fang,’ for example, has toothy growths extruding from its leaf surfaces, just in time for Halloween. Kalanchoe thyrsiflora has a series of rainbow colored paddles rising up from the ground on four foot stems. And Kalanchoe sexangularis suddenly appears, in a sunny spot, with a reddish burgundy glow, as though it were deposited in the garden by an extra-terrestrial being. Its Latin species name of sexangularis has to do with its stems, which supposedly have six (in Latin, sex means six) angles (angularis) but, in reality, it has square, not hexangonal, stems.
The name Kalanchoe has two possible derivations. According to most authorities on the subject of plant name origins, kalanchoe is composed of two Chinese words — kalan chauchy — which mean “that which falls, grows,” and refers to the fact that tiny plantlets, with baby roots attached, are produced on the leaf margins of certain Kalanchoe species. When they fall from the leaves, these plantlets root where they drop and eventually grow into full fledged adult specimens. Mother of thousands (Kalanchoe daigremontiana) is the classic species for illustration of this phenomenon. Alternatively, some botanists claim that Kalanchoe comes from two Hindi words — ‘kalanka’ meaning rust and ‘chaya’meaning glossy, a reference to the glossy red leaves of a particular species from India.
Aside from its curious name and the reproductive habit of certain of its species, Kalanchoe is distinguished by the fact that nearly half of its 125 species are native to Madagascar, a large island nation off the southeast coast of Africa. Islands tend to have their own distinctive flora or endemic species due to their isolation and specific soil and climate conditions. Endemic, whether plant or animal, is a word used to describe any species whose habitat is restricted to a single place on earth, and nearly all the Madagascar kalanchoe species are endemic to that island.
To find endemic plants, however, you do not have to travel to Madagascar. You need only take a ferry to Catalina and other Channel Islands to gaze upon a treasure trove of endemics, including island bush poppy (Dendromecon harfordii), with blue grey leaves and sulfur yellow blooms, Santa Cruz Island ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus ssp. aspleniifolius), recognizable by its mahogony red, exfoliating bark, vertically pronounced growth habit, and handsomely toothed foliage, and St. Catherine’s lace (Eriogonum giganteum), a gargantuan shrub growing up to eight feet tall with grey foliage that is smothered with a blinding display of rosy-pink parasol pannicles of blooms in spring and summer. As a matter of fact, according to those tending the UC Botanical Garden in Berkeley, of the 3,400 plus California native plants, one-third are endemic to this state.
Getting back to kalanchoe, certain species are toxic and grazing animals have been known to become sick after chewing them. Perhaps it is for this reason that the kalanchoes I recently planted were unmolested in a neighborhood where dozens of cats roam free. Along with the kalanchoes, I planted echeverias and aloes and these showed signs of serious chewing. The kalanchoes, however, were left alone and it would appear that cats, at least, have a sixth sense about the phytotoxicity of my Madagascar imports, eschewing to chew on them.
The best known member of this group is florists’ kalanchoe (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana). You can find it blooming at any time but it really comes into its own in fall and winter, when it is found in holiday displays in florist shops. Flowers are every color except blue and there are varieties with double flowers which look just like miniature roses.
Panda plant (Kalanchoe tomentosa) is a real charmer with its furry foliage and little brown spots on its leaf tips. Kalanchoe pumila has gray foliage with pink flowers. It is appropriate not only for a succulent garden but for containers and hanging baskets. For years, Kalanchoe pumila was planted en masse in the Getty Center garden adjacent to the azalea maze at the center of a pool at the garden’s southern end.
One caveat on planting kalanchoes: although they are highly drought tolerant, most are frost sensitive so if you are planting them outdoors, select the biggest specimens you can afford since large plants have a better chance of making it through a freeze than small ones.
Tip of the Week: You think you know something about a plant and then you suddenly realize that a huge gap in your knowledge prevented you from appreciating its finer qualities. Take snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) for example. And here, too, the Halloween motif is appropriate. If you just allow your snapdragon flowers to fade, seed capsules resembling little skulls will form. Inside those skulls, you will find the tiniest black seeds. You can either put them in an envelope for later planting, or just drop them then and there in the garden and wait for them to sprout in late winter or early spring. There is really no need to cover the seeds unless you want to dust a little compost over them. In any case, they are bound to find their own way since they are Mediterranean plants and really should feel right at home in Southern California, one of the four places — the other three being Chile, South Africa, and Southwest Australia — whose climate closely resembles a Mediterranean one.
There is something else you can do this time of year: take cuttings from your snapdragons and stick them in well-drained soil, whether in pots or in the ground. There is a good chance they just might root. You see, snapdragons are actually perennial plants, although they are typically grown as annuals.